Category: science

Science, scientific papers and the Internet universe

The Internet is a wonderful place, where everyone can freely communicate and write and discuss pretty much about everything. Freedom is a great thing, sadly it also poses its risks. In fact pretty much everyone can put up a website and become a self proclaimed expert in everything as well as writing about sensational theories and claim they have invented something. Last but not least, a website can also be a place where you can pretty much claim you know it all and everyone one else is wrong as well as claim magic effects of applications of your theories. I came across few of these, where self-proclaimed experts with no qualifications try to sell everything, from miraculous training methods, to super-foods and supplement to amazing exercise machines as well as selling their own pseudo-expertise.

Self-proclaimed expert Vs Real expert. The self-proclaimed expert claims he's good while the real expert doesn't have to prove he's one.

(This image is copyright of Ben Tremblay, read his wonderful blog here)

This is all possible simply because everyone can write whatever they want on a website or blog without undergoing the peer review process which is the basis of a scientific publication. I can use this blog in fact to write whatever I want and I totally control the content. However my aim is to write and discuss scientific matters related to sport providing my views on particular issues and/or reporting some interesting (to me) findings published in the scientific literature.
I don’t propose wacky theories, I don’t claim to be the only person on the planet with all the right answers and I don’t plan to build some cargo cult science following unlike so many individuals on the internet.
Some people in fact have websites where they criticize everything and everyone, they claim to have the right theories and they claim to have made inventions as well as stating that scientists (the ones that publish on scientific peer reviewed journals!) don’t get it, are wrong and don’t understand what they are talking about. But such people have never published anything anywhere, have never patented an invention and most of the times do not even have a basic degree in the field.

In this post I want to explain what is a scientific publication, what is the process needed to get a paper published and how a scientific paper looks like.

Scientific literature comprises scientific publications that report original empirical and theoretical work in the natural and social sciences. Scientific research on original work initially published in scientific journals is called primary literature. Patents and technical reports, for minor research results and engineering and design work (including computer software) can also be considered primary literature. Secondary sources include articles in review journals (which provide a synthesis of research articles on a topic to highlight advances and new lines of research), and books for large projects, broad arguments, or compilations of articles. Tertiary sources might include encyclopedias and similar works intended for broad public consumption.

A blog or a website is not considered (quite rightly) scientific literature or a scientific publication. None of the articles I write on this blog can be considered scientific literature.

What is the process to get a paper published on a scientific journal and how long does it take?
The process is quite long and sometimes it can take years from the idea to the publication on a scientific journal.

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The basic criterion is that there is a formalized process of peer-review prior to publication – so this presents a barrier to publication that acts as a quality control filter. Typically, the journal editor will give a submitted paper to a small number of qualified peers – recognized experts in the relevant field. The reviewers will then submit detailed criticism of the paper along with a recommendation to reject, accept with major revisions, accept with minor revisions, or accept as is. It is rare to get an acceptance as is on the first round.
The editor also reviews the paper, and may break a tie among the reviewers or add their own comments. 
The process, although at times painful, is quite useful in not only checking the quality of submitted work, but improving the quality. A reviewer, for example, may point out prior research the authors did not comment on, or may point our errors in the paper which can be fixed.
This is not a perfect process but at least creates some filter to information. I am and have been a reviewer to hundreds of manuscripts submitted for publication to various journals and always strived to provide a fair and constructive review as well as rejecting work which was not of the right quality.
The value of a scientific publication goes beyond the simple benefit of being filtered by peer review. It’s also a way to communicate your ideas to your scientific peers, and invite them to express an informed view as well as using your findings to advance knowledge in the field.
Peer review is not always perfect. Peer review is often represented as some kind of policing system for truth, but in reality, some dreadful nonsense gets published, and mercifully so: dubious and low quality material can sometimes get published; then the academic readers of this literature, who are trained to critically appraise a scientific case, can make their own judgement. This is the real stage of review in my view.
After publication other scientists will decide. If there are flaws in your case, responses can be written, as letters, or even whole new papers. If there is merit in your work, then new ideas and research will be triggered and your work gets cited. That is the real process of science.
Structure of a scientific paper

The first part is normally an abstract; this is a short summary of the work, and is intended to serve as a guide for determining if the articles is pertinent, and to furnish subject metadata for indexing services.
Abstracts should be read only when trying to find pertinent articles. The real information is NEVER in the abstract. If you only read abstracts you have not read the paper, you don’t know anything about the details of the experiment.
The content is  presented in the context of previous scientific investigations, by citation of relevant documents in the existing literature, in a section called an “Introduction“.
This section helps the reader in setting the scene, presenting current state of the art and leading the reader to the hypothesis of the research project,
Empirical techniques, laid out in a section usually called “Materials and Methods“, are described in such a way that a subsequent scientist, with appropriate knowledge of and experience in the relevant field, should be able to repeat the observations and know whether he or she has obtained the same result.
The methods section allows the reader to understand what happened as well as read the research design and the statistical techniques used.
The results of the investigation, in a section usually called “Results”, are presented in tabular or graphic form (image, chart, schematic, diagram or drawing) as well as text.
Interpretation of the meaning of the results is usually addressed in a “Discussion” and/or “Conclusion” section. The conclusions drawn should be based on previous literature and/or new empirical results, in such a way that any reader with knowledge of the field can follow the argument and confirm that the conclusions are sound.
Conclusions must not depend on personal authority, rhetorical skill, or faith but should be based on the results.
Finally, a “References” or “Literature Cited” section lists the primary sources cited by the authors in the format required by the journal.

Lessons

When reading information on the internet try to understand where it is coming from. When you want to know and understand more, always go to the primary sources. Don’t read only the abstract, try to get the full paper and read and study each section to understand the details. Make your mind up and read again, sometimes you might miss important points or relevant papers cited.

Reflections on the Italian conference on track and field

I am on the plane back to London returning from Italy after having spoken at a conference organised by the Italian Track and Field Federation’s regional committee of Veneto and the regional branch of the Italian Olympic Committee. I spent interesting 2 days in Abano Terme for a variety of reasons, some of which I will write about here. I also had time to reflect about my career so far and where I started.
First of all, I have to say it is always a pleasure to get back to Italy. I left many years ago to study and further my education (my first “escape” was in 1996 [time goes fast!]). After the USA, Spain, Hungary and bits and bobs around the World, I arrived in the UK in 2001 (yes it is now 10 years) to pursue a career in sports science. First in academia and since 2005 with the British Olympic Association. When I left Italy, It was with a bitter taste, many things happened which helped me decide to “throw in the towel” and move on.
The main issues were: the lack of meritocracy, the lack of vision and thinking big, the lack of jobs and clear career paths, the inability to work in partnership and the constant bad influence on politics in every field. However bitterness was then transformed in pleasantness by the realisation that leaving Italy was not an exile like some Italians think, but in reality a great opportunity to be thankful for. In fact, since arriving in the UK, I have been blessed with continuous opportunities. I have met some fantastic people, I have had the opportunity to work and collaborate with World Class colleagues in many fields in academia and sport and I have the privilege to work towards the London Olympics for the biggest sporting event which will happen in my country of adoption at least for my generation.
Reflecting on the last 18 years since I started this journey, I realised how much I have learnt and and how much I have evolved as a professional thanks not only to my own hard work and sacrifice, but also thanks to the countless interactions I have had and still have with various people in many fields and thanks to the opportunities I have been presented with.
The conference was also an emotional moment. It was primarily organised to discuss athletics in Italy and around the World thanks to contributors coming from Germany and France. But the main aim of the conference was to remember the immense contribution from the greatest Sports Scientist Italy ever had (in my view): Professor Carmelo Bosco. Prof. Bosco was my PhD supervisor, and I enjoyed some years of hard work on the road with him not only working on various research projects but also working on applied projects with athletes and higher education.
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(With Prof. Bosco on a trip)

Working with a genius is never easy. It takes effort, it is difficult, it is stressful and requires long hours of “deep” practice and a strong character as well as the willingness to accept criticism and work hard to learn. I feel so lucky of having been working with people like him, Atko Viru, Jozsef Tihanyi (to name a few), because these guys not only were great at what they did (and Josefz still is), but they were passionate about their jobs and were/are totally driven to learn more every day.
LaichTartu

(1998, Tartu Estonia – picture credit Bill Laich)

Italy was a difficult place to work at the time. The faculty of Sports Science did not have a library. If you wanted to read scientific literature, you needed to book access to the School of Sport of CONI and you were allowed few hours only few days per month. So if you wanted to have knowledge you had to go and get it and it was not easy to do so (mind you there were no queues…so clearly few people were interested in reading!). Unlike now, knowledge is “on tap” [but so is crap], and there is really no excuse for not trying to learn something new every day. For the young readers, this was the pre-PDF era when you had to go to the library, find the journal, take notes or make photocopies. It was a time when a literature search required a week to be done. You needed to hand in at reception a floppy disk with a list of keywords and come back a week later to receive the files with the literature search outputs. We had an office to do literature search with 1 computer. There were brick walls everywhere. But, as Randy Pausch said in his last lecture, brick walls are there to separate the people that really want something from the ones not willing to overcome the obstacles.
At the conference, I spoke about how great it was to discuss about science and training methodology 24 hours per day for few years. Having strong debates, doing calculations, performing experiments, discussing and arguing with coaches and scientists filled my days at the time. That was proper “deep practice”. Everything was an opportunity for growth and such environment was what made Italian sport successful and innovative in those years. It was great, and I treasure every minute of that time.

imageYury Verkchoschanski, Carmelo Bosco and Atko Viru discussing data. A normal day at the office in Rome in the 90s being in the same place working with these guys was brilliant. 

In Abano I also met an old friend and had the pleasure of translating his lecture. The old friend is Professor Paavo Komi. Prof. Komi was another inspiring figure in my career. I went to “study” him in 1997 in Denver at the ACSM when I was a student in the USA for my Master. I had read all his papers and books and wanted to see/hear his keynote lecture as well as understand how somebody can prepare a scientific presentation about his data and showcase his work in front of hundreds of people without panicking. I quietly entered the empty auditorium while he was aligning his slides (for the youngsters, at that time PowerPoint was not really an option) and asked politely if I could see him preparing the talk. He was a bit puzzled at first, but then he allowed me to stay. That day I learnt how meticulous preparation has to be in every field and I was inspired to try to reach his levels of knowledge and positive influence on the strength and conditioning and scientific community.
In Italy I was asked to translate his presentation and I loved every moment of it, as the work he has done with numerous collaborators around the world has been truly amazing as well as being totally relevant to strength and conditioning. I also had lunch with Paavo and we chatted about past times as well the origins of the European College of Sports Science and how things have changed in this profession so quickly (for the good) in the last 15 years. We should be thankful to this group of guys. They had a vision and not much money (actually they had none…) and they created a great organisation to foster collaboration, innovation and education as well as a job market for our profession. It is amazing what people can do if their noses are pointing in the same direction.
Few lessons here. People and ideas drive innovation and change and help athletes reaching new heights. Facilities and gadgets help and support people and ideas. Not the other way around. Likeminded people willing to park the ego at the door for bigger achievements than personal self promotion can do amazing things. Lessons from the past are good. Experience helps in framing the path to the future.
There is a tendency these days to discard what happened in the past in every field. As well as a tendency to forget about the people which were there before and got their t-shirts. I guess it is a sign of the times. Old school is perceived to be not relevant anymore. I like old school. In particular if old school means application of basic, sound concepts with attention to detail.
I think we should make sure we know and understand well what happened in the past to learn and we should seek wisdom from the people who were trying to do what we do now years ago so we don’t re-invent the wheel. In our field we have still the same unanswered questions. We still don’t have 100% knowledge on how to individualise and maximise training programmes, we haven’t cracked the code on overtraining and fatigue and we still don’t understand fully what it takes to transform successful young athletes in winning performers.
So, if you are a young sports scientist, make sure you listen to the people teaching and mentoring you. They may sound old school, sometimes pedantic, sometimes a bit hard to deal with. Listen to them, there is a lot to learn and you will thank them ten years from now. Also, make sure you also read scientific papers published many years ago. Not all the recent literature is “recent”, lots of things have been done before and they are “sold” as new.
If you are looking for examples, go and read the work from Professor Angelo Mosso and look at his ergograph developed in 1890. You will find out that the use of dynamometry to measure fatigue is not a new idea after all.
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Epidermal Electronics

I have been recently reading a lot about epidermal electronics. Pretty soon patients in hospitals (and sports people) should be able to wear skin mounted electrodes to be able to measure a variety of physiological indicators in real time for a prolonged period of time.

The latest innovation comes from the University of Illinois. A new device looking like a tattoo, has been developed and proposed as an innovative smart skin solution. Researchers at the University of Illinois who came up with this device made circuits with a wide array of components, to prove it could work: sensors, LEDs, transistors, radio frequency capacitors and wireless antennas. The devices can draw power from induction or even from mini solar cells!

Inventors say they could be used for various medical applications, especially sensors that monitor heart and muscle activity, which currently require conductive gels and/or relatively bulky equipment. To prove it, they measured electrical activity produced by the heart, brain, and skeletal muscles, some data are reported in Science.

image You can also see a video of the technology below. Pretty impressive technology which will be hopefully available soon!

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1

This is impressive technology, pushing the boundaries of wearable sensors and providing incredible possibilities for studying human movement.

(Example of a sensor setup for EEG and other measurements. Photo courtesy of Prof. John Rogers)

(Easy removal of the skin mounted electrode. Photo courtesy of Prof. John Rogers)

You can learn more about this and other technologies developed by Professor Rogers’ group here.